This is a post by Jesse Galef.
Why do we pretend that we can learn some great truth by studying works of fiction? In school I was always made to analyze and overanalyze novels. When their elusive meaning was found, it was handed to us as if we should treat it with reverence.
I hope to use VorJack’s interesting post at UnreasonableFaith as a jumping-off point. Starting with one of my favorite fantasy authors, Robert Jordan, he notes that people often find connections and messages in works of fiction that were not necessarily intended by the author:
Does it matter that these meanings aren’t original? What does it signify when you find a meaning or an idea in a work, but the creator did not put it there? Is the meaning not “real”? Imagine a connect-the-dots puzzle, where you find a way to make a Celtic knot-work design when the author intended it to be a giraffe. Is each pattern equally valid, or is the creator’s pattern the only accurate solution?
The only reason this question seems difficult is that we have an ambiguous uses of the words ‘valid’ and ‘accurate’. Only the picture of a giraffe is an “accurate” solution to the question: What message was the author intending to impart? Either the giraffe or the knot is an accurate solution to the question: What recognizable shapes can be made from these dots? Defining ‘valid’ and ‘accurate’ toward those purposes will clear up the apparent problem.
But even if we infer the particular message intended by the author, we need to be careful not to give it too much weight. It’s merely one person’s opinion communicated through the medium of a novel. Just because an author describes relationships, society, or human nature working a certain way doesn’t mean that he’s correct.
Unfortunately, we have a bias to believe that ideas are more likely if we hear them vividly and frequently described. Dystopias are a prime example, often with serious consequences:
In a new piece in Commentary magazine, Jay Lefkowitz — who advised Bush on stem cells — reveals how the President formulated his 2001 policy. While Bush heard from a variety of groups on both sides of the issue, the turning point appeared to come when Lefkowitz read from Aldous Huxley’s fictional novel, Brave New World, and scared Bush:
A few days later, I brought into the Oval Office my copy of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s 1932 anti-utopian novel, and as I read passages aloud imagining a future in which humans would be bred in hatcheries, a chill came over the room.
“We’re tinkering with the boundaries of life here,” Bush said when I finished. “We’re on the edge of a cliff. And if we take a step off the cliff, there’s no going back. Perhaps we should only take one step at a time.” [Emphasis in original]
Aldous Huxley had a vision of how society interacts with technological advances. He thought such a scenario would lead to hatcheries, deception, and nightmarish conditions. That possibility scared Bush into a position on stem-cell research. So? Huxley has no particular authority on the subject. Someone else could come along and write a story about a world in which technology creates excellent living conditions! If someone had read that story to Bush, maybe he would have gladly supported research.
Of course, authors are usually not even trying to paint an accurate depiction of reality – they’re choosing unrepresentative samples that are more pleasing to read. How many war novels/movies are there about the brave soldier defying all odds and defeating the enemy? The very phrase “defying all odds” implies that there are far more soldiers who do the same thing and get summarily killed. We don’t see movies about them very often, because their stories aren’t as fun, exciting, and inspiring. That’s why I particularly appreciated Terry Pratchett’s dedication of his book “Guards! Guards!“:
They may be called the Palace Guard, the City Guard, or the Patrol. Whatever the name, their purpose in any work of heroic fantasy is identical: it is, round about Chapter Three (or ten minutes into the film) to rush into the room, attack the hero one at a time, and be slaughtered. No-one ever asks them if they wanted to. This book is dedicated to those fine men.
The world is full of brave soldiers who die, true love that does not conquer all, and unpleasant people who go on to enjoy long, happy lives.
Given that we might not be understanding the author’s intention, and even if we do it’s only one point of view, and that that point of view does not necessarily reflect reality – indeed is usually chosen to misrepresent reality – what lessons can we and should we learn from fiction?